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Skirty Protest

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“Christ, it’s fuckin’ Baltic out here!” Michelle snapped as the gang walked out of Our Lady Immaculate College on a cold Friday afternoon. The temperature seemed to have dropped several degrees over the course of the day, which blindsided the girls somewhat.

“Aye, it’s like the North Pole but without polar bears and penguins,” Erin said in agreement.

“Penguins don’t live at the North Pole,” James told Erin.

“All right, David Attenborough, it was just a turn of phrase!” Michelle huffed.

“Wouldn’t it be cracker if we had penguins and polar bears in Derry?” Orla pondered.

“No, Orla, polar bears are dangerous!” Clare squeaked.

“It’d be grand, it could eat Jenny Joyce and maybe James too. As long as it doesn’t inconvenience me I don’t really care!” Michelle said.

“Aye, Granda would probably get it to eat Daddy too,” Erin added.

“That wouldn’t be so cracker,” Orla said.

“Michelle, did you ever write to the Polish ambassador?” Clare asked.

“Aye, he wrote back and said that they don’t have polar bears in Poland so the name is a complete misnomer! He did say that if we ever want to visit Poland then he can sort us out with cheap flights and his sister owns a guesthouse in Gdansk,” Michelle answered.

“Poland? Do they have lots of poles there?” Orla asked.

“That’s what the natives are called, yes,” James replied.

“That’s so cracker!” Orla said happily. “I wanna go!”

“Orla, it’s a very Catholic country and they eat a lot of potatoes so it’s not that different from here. They just have a lot more vodka,” Erin told her cousin.

“More vodka? The ambassador didn’t mention that! I’ll reply to his letter tonight,” Michelle said with a happy grin.

“Going back to the original conversation topic: I’m freezing too!” Clare complained.

“Aye, same. Are you not cold too, James?” Orla inquired.

“Not especially,” the sole boy of the group answered.

“Catch yourself on, Orla, of course he’s not cold!” Erin scoffed.
“But why?” Orla asked.

“Look at him, Orla!” Clare snapped, “Specifically at his legs! What do you notice?”

Orla stared intrusively at James’s lower body, causing the boy a significant level of embarrassment.

“Not at his crotch, Orla! That’s minging!” Michelle snapped.

“That’s rich, coming from you, Michelle!” Clare piped up. “You were the one who was objectifying the Protestant lads!”

“That was different, Clare! They were Prods whereas James is both Catholic and my cousin!” Michelle retorted.

“Why aren’t you cold, James?” Orla asked, still none the wiser.

“It’s the trousers, Orla!” Erin huffed with exasperation.

Orla suddenly grabbed James’s trousers at a point above his knee and alarmingly close to his crotch. “Aye, they feel so warm and comfortable!”

“Orla, don’t touch me like that!” James yelped.

“I wouldn’t complain, dicko, that’s the closest thing you’ll get to action while you’re living here!” Michelle snarked.

“So why can James wear trousers and we can’t? Orla wondered.

“Because I’m a boy, Orla!” James answered matter-of-factly.

“Aye, but why?” Orla inquired.

“Orla, don’t make me explain chromosomes to you!” Clare grumbled.

“Clare, we don’t need a biology lesson!” Erin hissed.

“But Orla raises a good point,” Michelle said. “Why should James be allowed to wear trousers, just because he’s a fella?”

“Michelle, you know that Sister Michael allowed me to enrol at this school because of my unique circumstances!” James answered irritably. “And they could hardly expect me to go around in a skirt! Surely people here don’t need more reasons to mock me!”

“Aye, you supply plenty of those on your own,” Michelle admitted derisively.

“James, were girls allowed to wear trousers at your old school in London?” Clare asked.

“Yes, but it was a secular comprehensive school,” James replied.

“That’s disgraceful! I won’t stand for that injustice! We should have the same rights as schoolgirls across the United Kingdom!” Erin yelled.

“Erin, you don’t want this region, province - or whatever the term is - to be part of the United Kingdom!” James pointed out.

“Not the point, James!” Erin snapped.

“Erin’s right, we can’t just accept this state of affairs!” Clare said.

“What are you going to do? Wear trousers to school in protest?” James asked sarcastically.

James looked away, during which time Clare, Erin and Michelle shared a devious smile.

The following Monday, the gang took the bus to school as usual and when they reached the school, the girls filed into the toilet to the confusion of James, who never understood why girls went to the toilet together, not that he was in a desperate rush to find out.

“Ok, girls, look what I’ve got!” Michelle said proudly, opening her bag to reveal four pairs of grey school trousers, similar to those James, who was waiting outside, was wearing.

“Michelle, how did you get hold of these?” Clare asked in amazement.

“I swiped three pairs from James. Poor dick was going crazy wondering where they’d all gone!” Michelle told the girls mischievously. “I got Johnny Kells to nab the other pair from his wee brother.”

“Are they clean, Michelle?” Orla asked, “Because if James has been wearing them they’ll be covered in dead skin cells.”

“Don’t worry, Orla, I did the washing this weekend and I can assure you that these are free of James’s English DNA,” Michelle answered.

“Good work, Michelle,” Erin said, “Those are words I never thought I’d say!”

“Clare, I’ve got some pins so you can fold the hems up. These are normally worn by a fella much taller than you!” Michelle told the short girl.

The girls got changed and headed outside to meet James, who was looking at them incredulously. “What the hell?” he asked.

“Well, James, you gave us the idea of wearing trousers to school in protest so we did it!” Erin beamed.

“That wasn’t supposed to be a serious suggestion!” James said with anxious exasperation. “Michelle, are the trousers mine?”

“Some of them are,” Michelle replied. “Thank you for lending them.”

“Anytime,” James mumbled sarcastically.

Suddenly, a familiar voice materialised: “Good morning, ladies!” The gang turned around to find Sister Michael standing with her hands on her hips, looking fierce as always. “Care to join me in my office?”

The gang compliantly followed the nun to her office. James internally deliberated on whether to disclaim responsibility but decided not to on the basis that Derry girls - literal or honorary - stood up for each other. Even if Clare directed all blame to Michelle on his first day at Our Lady Immaculate College, her previous appeal to the gang to back each other up was still sound in principle.

“So,” Sister Michael began, “I don’t suppose I need to explain the reason why I’ve called you into my office.” The five teenagers remained silent. “I thought not. Would anyone like to explain this?”

The five exchanged anxious looks until Erin piped up: “We should be allowed to wear trousers!”

“Yeah, James is allowed to wear them,” Michelle added, “So why can’t we?”

“Miss Quinn, you appear to have serious difficulties understanding the concept of authority,” Sister Michael said harshly. “As for you, Miss Mallon, you seem to have forgotten why Mr Maguire is a special case. The clue is in his name.”

“Aye, because he makes a funny noise, isn’t that right, Sister Michael?” Orla offered.

“That is true, Orla, but you have overlooked the fact that Mr Maguire is a boy,” Sister Michael snarled. “I did briefly entertain the idea of making Mr Maguire wear a skirt but he’s suffered enough already by being born English through no fault of his own.”

“We know he’s a boy, Sister,” Clare protested. “But surely it’s sexist to not allow us to wear trousers just because we’re girls.”

“Generally speaking, I would support the pursuit of gender equality, Miss Devlin. Indeed, I could be a much better priest than the doses in our diocese, but I have a school to run here!” Sister Michael said sharply. “Mr Maguire, were you party to this charade?”

The four girls turned to James with a collective glare that served as a warning not to let the team down. “It was my idea, Sister,” James said, which was technically true, to the shock of girls as evidenced by their incredulous facial expressions. “I even provided the trousers because I strongly support the cause. I mean, I feel that as a modern, liberal young man that I should help my female friends in the feminist struggle against the patriarchy.”

“Well, Mr Maguire, you may be Engish but your honesty is appreciated,” Sister Michael said. The gang struggled not to laugh at the irony of the nun’s statement. “But this is a school and not the place to engage in political protest. You girls can get changed in the toilets while I phone your parents to pick you up.”

The girls changed back into their skirts and rejoined James on the bench outside the office. Needless to say, the parents of the gang were less than thrilled at being called into school yet again. Back at the Mallon household, Deirdre sent Michelle up to her room while summoning James into the kitchen. “James, what were you playing at?” she asked with exasperation. “I thought you were better than this! I would have expected this from Michelle but not you! What’s got into you?”

“I can explain, Auntie Deirdre,” James said timidly.

“I’m listening.”

“Well, it was technically my idea because I suggested it but only flippantly. I didn’t think that they’d actually pursue it but then again I should have really known better.”

“Aye, you should have done. So, did you provide the trousers?”

“Well, Michelle borrowed some pairs from me so I guess I did, albeit indirectly. I could have told Sister Michael that I didn’t have any role in actually making it happen but it didn’t seem right to throw the girls under the bus like that.”

Deirdre smiled unexpectedly. “I should be cross but that’s actually admirable to stick up for your friends like that. You’re learning how things work around here, which is impressive.”

“Oh, ok. Thank you, Auntie Deirdre.”

“But keep this conversation between us.”

“Certainly, Auntie Deirdre...I’ll go and do my schoolwork.”

The next morning, the gang arrived at school where they were surprised to see hundreds of other students wearing trousers, including Jenny Joyce, who was standing in front of them, flanked by Aisling as usual. “Hi guys!” she greeted them cheerfully.

“Jenny, Aisling, what are you doing?” Erin asked.

“We thought it was such an injustice that you were sent home yesterday for such a noble protest so we decided to join in!” Jenny replied. “Isn’t that right, Aisling?”

“Exactly right,” Aisling confirmed, “We thought it would have more impact if we all did it.”

“Did you spearhead this?” James asked.

“You bet I did! With my influence, I got everyone on board!” Jenny answered.

“That’s actually really class to back us up like that,” Michelle said, “Credit where it’s due.”

“Don’t mention it!” Aisling responded. “I may wear men’s trousers more often as they’re so comfortable!”

“Aye, it’s cracker that they have pockets,” Orla agreed.

“Isn’t it just?” Curse the fashion industry for making us pocketless trousers that force us to buy handbags!” Jenny responded with a disturbing level of enthusiasm that was true to character for her.

“We should burn our handbags in protest!” Orla yelled.

“I don’t want to be a craic killer-” Clare began.

“Bit late for that!” Michelle mumbled.

“But surely Sister Michael won’t be on board with this!” Clare finished.

“She can’t send the whole school home!” Jenny said confidently.

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” James muttered.

“Well, we have to try!” Aisling argued.

“Too right! Rome wasn’t built in a day!” Erin agreed.

“Was it built at night?” Orla asked.

The seven students headed into school with the rest of the trouser-clad student body, all full of naive optimism that this protest would succeed. Suddenly, an announcement sounded over the public address system: “All students please report to assembly immediately!”

The whole school gathered in the hall where Sister Michael was standing on her podium, with Miss Mooney standing to her left. “Good morning, ladies. I see you have decided to participate in a silly stunt. That is your choice, but choices have consequences.” She paused. “You probably thought that I wouldn’t send the whole school home.” She drew a second dramatic pause. “But you would be mistaken. All students wearing trousers - apart from Mr Maguire - are excluded for the rest of the day with immediate effect!”
A wave of groans erupted across the room immediately. “Is there a problem with that, ladies?”

“No, Sister Michael,” the students replied in unison before filing out of the room humiliated and defeated, leaving just the five students who had been sent home yesterday. Sister Michael walked over to them with a triumphant smile.

“Should we go home too, Sister Michael?” James asked.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s not really worth us being here if the rest of the school aren’t,” Michelle added.

“You know, Sister, this would be a really good opportunity for me to work on my poetry which you know is spectacular,” Erin argued.

“And you’d save on heating and other costs,” Clare chipped in.

“Don’t you worry, ladies, you’re in for a treat!” Sister Michael said, still smiling triumphantly, which made the four students bar Orla very suspicious.

“Do we get to go to Lisnagelvin Leisure Centre?” Orla asked excitedly.

“Not quite,” Sister Michael replied. “Today, you all get one-to-one tuition for each lesson. Come to my office and we’ll draw up a plan. I hope you enjoy this special privilege!” The nun turned around, still smiling to herself. No matter what the students of Our Lady Immaculate tried, they could never get the better of her.